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Bringing Ida back

ASU Professor Ersula Ore on the vital role Ida B. Wells played in anti-lynching activism and the women's suffrage movement

woman speaking with photo of young boy in background

March 01, 2020

Kicking off Women’s History Month this year is the 107th anniversary of the first large political march in Washington, D.C., the Woman Suffrage Procession of 1913, which took place March 3. The purpose, organizers declared, was to “march in a spirit of protest against the present political organization of society, from which women are excluded.”

Present at the march was Ida B. Wells, a black investigative journalist, civil rights leader and suffragist whose scathing pamphlet “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases” revealed the practice of lynching as an act of white civic identity meant to oppress African Americans.

During the march, Wells was told she and other black delegates were to walk at the end of the procession in a “colored delegation.” Instead, she waited until the parade was underway and triumphantly joined in the procession as it passed by, walking with her state delegation from Illinois.

black and white photo of woman from the 19th century

Ida B. Wells. Photo courtesy the Smithsonian Institute

ASU Professor Ersula Ore recently published a book, “Lynching: Violence, Rhetoric, and American Identity,” in which she relied heavily on Wells’ activism and theories in forming her arguments. Over time, though, Wells’ intersectional activism, in which she worked to advance both civil and women’s rights, has been overlooked.

With the passage of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act last week, the recent anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s fatal shooting and the upcoming 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, ASU Now sat down to talk with Ore about how these issues have persisted over time and to bring attention back to the vital role Wells played in this chapter of American history.

Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: How is lynching related to the idea of American citizenship?

Answer: Lynching is about racial power and safeguarding the nation against those who we believe do not belong. So it functions as a kind of rhetoric of belonging, an argument for who does and who does not have the civic worthiness to be a member of the nation. The notion of lynching as a practice of citizenship isn’t a new idea. Ida B. Wells argued that lynching was about economic property and maintaining the racial divide. Many lynchings occurred on the courthouse lawn, at the center of town squares. So they were meant to be seen. They were meant to be displays of power and intimidation to demonstrate that "this is the racial order, and this is what you can anticipate if you misbehave."

Of course, “misbehaving” for a black person was just living. Exercising their dignity, their agency. Every time a black person tried to act in the function and the capacity of a citizen, they were violently disciplined. So lynching is a practice of white citizenship that identifies who does and who does not belong. And we see that language, we see that practice, we see that discourse — I'm jumping really quickly to the 21st century — we see all that when rhetoricians join the argument that lynching is a practice of white civic identity with the argument that modern-day anti-black police brutality is a practice of white civic identity. Despite the fact that these are bodies in blue that enact that brutality. Part of my argument in the book is that bodies in blue operate with the same kind of power as white folks. They have the power to take life, the power to operate as innocent because they're protected and insulated by the state in ways that blacks and nonblack people of color aren’t. The larger argument of the book is that this isn't just simply a practice of American civic identity, but it's one that's tied into the state and used as a policing practice.

So when black folks see police brutality and they say, “That's a lynching,” that's not hyperbolic speech. That's following the arc of history. The motivation for the book was to function as a pedagogical tool. I wanted to teach people how to read these contemporary moments, and I really focused on lynching specifically. Oprah said Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin were the same thing, and she was blasted by the media for it; specifically white conservative news, which said Emmett Till was lynched but Trayvon Martin was murdered. Well, he was murdered because he was a “suspicious guy” in a place where he “didn't belong.” That was his home. But he didn't belong there. Keep in mind it was a gated community. So it’s very layered, how physical, ideological and discursive borders are constructed to keep people out, at the same time that they’re meant to make those who feel threatened feel protected.

Q: How did Ida B. Wells' anti-lynching activism intersect with her activism related to women’s suffrage?

A: Her anti-lynching activism is an extension of the abolitionist movement. And there are certain white women — with the evangelical bent, to a certain extent — who support this movement (abolition). So that was the network of individuals she was working with. I wouldn’t necessarily say they were suffragettes. Some of them were. But Ida B. was already working with certain individuals who were supportive of this movement toward racial egalitarianism in America. So she got a lot of support from wealthy white women, and that helped catapult her and finance her tours abroad to speak to women's organizations that were fighting for visibility and political protections. So she was able to capitalize upon that budding proto-feminist movement from an international standpoint and then leverage that in the United States.

Q: How did Wells undermine the notion of black womanhood at that time?

A: The ability to use one's words and one's voice … the confidence with which she spoke, the agency that she assumed … that was a very threatening thing. She was a representation of black womanhood that went against what other black women had been raised to be, and also went against what the public said black women were supposed to be. And the reason she has been silenced, in a way, in history is because it's dangerous to share that kind of knowledge that there are such individuals. If that history doesn't exist, if there is no precedent, it makes it more difficult for an individual to find a model to follow and potentially become a problem. She was a black woman who used words, who weaponized language, and language is powerful. The ability to sow a little seed of doubt, to change a person's mind? That could make the whole structure crumble.

Q: Around 1870, the women’s suffrage movement splintered over the 15th Amendment, which would enfranchise black men the right to vote, but not women of any race. Why was Wells on the side that opposed support for the 15th Amendment?

A: Once women realized they might not get the vote, they were like, “All right, well, let's support black men in the vote.” And black women were like, “No. If all of us don't get the vote, then nobody's getting the vote.” A number of black women will tell you, “I'm a black woman. I'm not a woman (who is) black.” When we think about how the English language works, the adjective precedes the noun. And we give these adjectives a lot of weight. So even though we all might be women in the room, we're not all treated as women. The way that (a white woman’s) womanhood manifests is allowed to be safeguarded in ways that (black women’s) isn’t.

But white womanhood needs black womanhood, and all other forms of womanhood, all other iterations of the woman, in order to stand. And that’s the intersectional argument. And this is part of what Ida B. Wells and many black women were trying to say, which is that we’re not the same. Like, “We share some relationships, and the structure of racism has made it so that you give birth to the people who become heirs to property while I give birth to property. But we are tethered, regardless, to this master in ways that neither one of us wants to be. Because we know y'all aren’t free, and y'all know we’re not free.” But yet there are points of privilege under the racial hierarchy that allow certain women to exercise forms of power to maintain a sense of livelihood and self.

Q: Black men were considered for the right to vote, but no women — regardless of race — were considered for the right to vote. How do gender and race intersect around the idea of citizenship?

A: Citizenship was always masculine. By definition, it’s masculine. Even from the time of the Greeks and the Romans, when you had women speaking at the polis and at forums, it was a rarity. You could barely find a female form at any kind of classic rhetoric. When I say classic rhetoric, I mean the tradition of speaking in public with the purpose of putting an argument before the court for a certain issue. That was almost always embodied by men.

Citizenship, civility, civil society is about who is and who is not human. Well, women aren't human. Women are vessels for men, for the perpetuation of what men desire. America has always been a Judeo-Christian society that has been dominated by men. We're patrilineal for a reason. We say that this is the land of the free and the home of the brave, but the free look a certain kind of way. And the free are the ones who had the capacity to own property and had the capacity to sit at tables and make decisions. That's not the majority. For me, that's always been held in a white male body and anyone who has the capacity to be linked to that. So for me, historically, that has been white men and then white women, because there's a privilege and cover that's provided by that connection. And then black men. Even though racism exists, there’s still power in gender, there's still masculine power. So whether it's white, black, Asian, whatever — depending on the culture to a certain extent — there's always male dominance. That’s the reason why feminism is universal.

Q: Could voter suppression be considered a form of lynching?

A: No, I would not say voter suppression is a form of lynching. And I want to be clear about this: Lynching is racialized violence. Voter suppression isn’t lynching. Unless you are physically dragged out of line or murdered because you’re black and you’re trying to vote. Which has happened, historically. But voter suppression does come from the same place as lynching, in the sense that voter suppression is about maintaining power and control, and silencing voices.

But I'm worried about the elasticity of terms and how terms become stretched to a point where they no longer carry the same kind of weight they once had. Specifically with regard to lynching, the definition has been revised time and time again to make it so narrow that nothing can constitute a lynching. The reason people get upset about using the term “lynching” is because they understand that it means something in particular, specifically racialized violence and death, or the surviving of death. The other thing about the term is that it has a historical resonance. So if we start applying it to other things, then it's not going to carry the same weight. That’s part of the reason people get upset about the term “Holocaust,” for instance. There have been debates within ethnic communities about who can use what term, and the Jewish community has really policed ethnic groups’ capacities to use that term outside of that community, that religion and that history. Because using it to refer to other things (such as the internment of Japanese Americans in the United States) undermines their history and the specificity of their suffering.

Q: As a rhetorician, do you have a favorite Wells speech or quote?

A: Ida B. said that by the front door of every black home, there needs to be a Winchester rifle. I love this, because it's all about weaponizing and protecting your home. Being fearless about protecting what is yours. And that was literally criminalized. Because what happened was, after the lynching of her three friends, there were riots. Following the riots, black folks tried to weaponize to protect their homes, because they knew there was going to be retaliation for the riots. And gun merchants refuse to sell them weapons, so they could not protect their homes. So Ida B. said every black home needs to have a Winchester rifle at the front door.

So for me, when I think about that, I don't necessarily think about literally having a gun at my door. I think about my words. I’m prepared to use my words, because my words are weapons. So I try to choose my words wisely, in the same fashion that she chose her words wisely.

Top photo: ASU School of Social Transformation Professor Ersula Ore delivers the ASU Ethnic Studies Week keynote speech, "Lynching in American Public Memory," on Nov. 20, 2019. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Suzanne Wilson contributed to this article.

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